By Justin Mathis
SPARTANBURG, S.C. – It may have been overcast and dreary outside, but that didn’t stop USC Upstate from having their Homecoming festivities on campus as the Spartans played host to the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles in a Saturday afternoon Atlantic Sun tilt.
In the final clash between the two schools as conference foes, a significant defensive adjustment & a pair of strong performances helped power Florida Gulf Coast to an 88-71 victory over USC Upstate.
USC Upstate couldn’t have asked for a much better start to the game, opening up an 11-0 lead over Florida Gulf Coast before the Eagles could get on the board. As the opening half progressed, Upstate forced FGCU into some missed shots from close and long range, which allowed the Spartans to push the tempo and get out in transition.
The Spartans built an advantage as big as 18 points, 32-14, by the 7:22 mark, due in large part to the contributions from Mike Cunningham and Ramel Thompkins, who combined to knock down eight of Upstate’s nine first half triples. The Spartans took a 44-29 lead into the break.
Florida Gulf Coast made what proved to be a huge adjustment to start the second stanza by switching from a man defense to a zone defense. That zone defense caused the Spartans to miss eight of their first nine shots, with all but one of them coming from the arc.
“In the first half, we came out strong and everybody was making shots,” Cunningham said. “Basketball is a game of runs, so we knew they were going to make their run. Their zone hit us hard… we didn’t expect them to go zone. Once they went zone, that caught us a bit off guard and we had to adjust. We really couldn’t get in a rhythm after that.”
FGCU used a 12-3 run, led by RaySean Scott Jr. and Brandon Goodwin, sparked a second half surge, trimming Upstate’s lead down to 47-41 with 15:52 remaining in regulation.
After a layup from Scott cut the deficit to one, the Eagles took their first lead of the contest, 53-51, on their next possession when Zach Johnson converted on a three point play.
“We had no answers early in the game,” Florida Gulf Coast head coach Joe Dooley admitted. “We switched some things up defensively and I thought our guys did a good job. We gave up a few too many offensive rebounds, but we were able to get out and contest shots on the three point line. I thought we got Upstate off the line a little bit better (in the second half).”
“I think we started off a bit sluggish,” Goodwin added. “We weren’t defending the ball like we were capable of. Once we started doing that, it started to open up easy driving lanes. I thought we wore (Upstate) down when we sat down and guarded them and defended them pretty well.”
FGCU shot 24 for 33 (72.7%) in the second half and scored 26 points off of turnovers. Upstate was held to 9 for 38 (26.5%) shooting in the second stanza, including a three-for-18 mark from distance.
“We just couldn’t make shots at that point,” Upstate head coach Kyle Perry said, referencing FGCU’s zone defense. “I felt like we had good looks and just didn’t knock them down. The zone affected us and really got us a little bit lethargic, more so than I wanted (us) to be. I felt like that if you make a couple of three’s early in the second half, you pull them out of (the zone), but we didn’t make them. They’re a good team for a reason – stayed in (the game), got stops, and really got going on us in transition.”
Mike Cunningham scored a game-high 26 points for the Spartans, while Deion Holmes and Ramel Thompkins also finished in double figures with 16 and 13 points, respectively.
FGCU was led by Scott with a career-high 21 points. Brandon Goodwin finished with 19 points, while Zach Johnson (14), Christian Terrell (14), and Antravious Simmons each tallied double digit totals.
With his 21 points, Scott also notched the first 20 point game of his college career.
USC Upstate (7-21, 2-9) will hit the road for their last road trip of the regular season, beginning on Thursday, February 15th at 7 PM with a visit to North Florida.
With the win, Florida Gulf Coast (20-8, 11-0) clinches the outright Atlantic Sun regular season championship and top seed for the conference tournament. The Eagles will next play on February 15th at 7 PM, when they host Kennesaw State.